This year's college freshmen start soon, and those living away from home will receive roommate assignments shortly if they haven't already. While first-years may have a roommate of a different race or religion, from a different socioeconomic background, or from another part of the country, their roommate will almost universally be someone of the same sex.
Though separating students by gender and sex sounds benign enough, same-gender only housing policies perpetuate problematic gender and sex norms and cause discomfort for some students. A handful of colleges, such as U.C. Berkeley and Penn, offer gender- and sex-neutral housing to incoming students, and over 50 offer it to upperclass students. Students at other schools would benefit if their colleges followed suit; here's why:
1. Same-gender only housing is heteronormative
Intentional man-man and woman-woman roommate pairings are based on the assumption that such pairs will not have sex with each other or try to sexually take advantage of one another.
That, of course, assumes that they're both heterosexual. While the majority of the population is heterosexual, it is wrong to base housing decisions on an assumption of sexual orientation -- even the most conservative schools have lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
This heteronormative mindset makes life harder for LGBT people; it is the reason gay, but not straight, people must come out for others to know their orientation, and why lesbians get asked if they have a boyfriend. While same-gender only housing policies promote heteronormativity, gender-neutral options help to combat that mindset by enabling students to pick a roommate or have one assigned without their (presumed heterosexual) orientation in mind.
2. Gender-neutral housing offers a safe option to students outside traditional gender and sex boxes
All students deserve a safe living environment in which they feel comfortable. For intersex, genderqueer and transgender students, gender- and sex-neutral housing (complete with gender-neutral bathrooms) can provide that safe option. Genderqueer and intersex students do not strongly identify at either end of the gender and sex binaries of "man-woman" and "male-female," respectively, and may feel uncomfortable selecting from these binaries on a housing form or living in an all-male or all-female section. Transgender students might feel comfortable living in a single-gender room or section so long as they do not face prejudice for being in the "wrong" section, but they may experience difficulties if they are not yet out or are in the process of transitioning. Gender-neutral housing options provide transgender, genderqueer and intersex students relief by ensuring that they do not need to out themselves or feel constrained by gender and sex binaries in their new homes.
3. Gender-neutral housing makes gender less significant
Gender and sex, like race and sexual orientation, are not choices, yet -- unlike other categories -- it is considered acceptable to segregate people based upon these statuses. A gender-neutral housing option offers the maximum opportunity for a diverse and integrated residence hall community in which gender and sex do not dictate one's experience. Not grouping by gender also offers greater opportunities to group by other attributes, such as common interests or roommate compatibility.
Gender ought to be insignificant in everything from hiring decisions to parenting responsibilities. We're not there yet, but looking beyond gender and sex in housing decisions can make it easier to look beyond gender and sex elsewhere in life.
To be sure, gender-neutral housing options are just that: an option. While mainstream gender-neutral housing is a worthy long-term goal, making a complete switch now would make some people highly uncomfortable -- just like mandatory same-gender rooms make many transgender, genderqueer and intersex students uncomfortable now.
Notably, many schools such as Harvard and NYU offer gender- or sex-neutral housing to upperclass students, who may choose to room with an opposite-sex friend, but not to first-years. The problems with requiring same-gender housing affect incoming students, too, and it is important that schools recognize these students' needs.
While the concept of gender- and sex-neutral housing may sound radical, it was less than 50 years ago that the idea of co-ed dorms was radical, too. Now it's no big deal. At Grinnell College in Iowa, 1 percent of students opted for gender-neutral housing when it launched in 2008 and, after seeing that others had positive experiences, 18 percent chose it this past year. Some people who choose gender- and sex-neutral housing are intrigued, others are open-minded, and a few need the option to feel comfortable and safe in their own room.
Then again, it might simply be nice to get a roommate assignment based on shared interests, a common sleeping pattern, or something else besides genitalia.